The Potomac Stakes: Hillary Must Limit the Damage, McCain Can Put It Away

021208 clinton web The Potomac Stakes: Hillary Must Limit the Damage, McCain Can Put It AwayHere’s what’s at stake in today’s primary contests:

Democrats

Barack Obama is supposed to go three-for-three on the day. Short of engineering an upset victory—which would represent a campaign-changing development—Hillary Clinton’s best hope lies in containing her opponent’s victory margins and keeping the delegate race close, possibly positioning her to declare some kind of moral victory. On the heels of her weekend drubbings—and the news that she is replacing her campaign manager—the risk for Clinton tomorrow is obvious: Three more unspinnably lopsided defeats could create the impression that her campaign is in a tailspin, and that Obama is beginning to pull away.

Maryland:

To appreciate why Obama is all but assured of winning the statewide vote, just consider Maryland’s most recent Democratic U.S. Senate primary, a racially polarized 2006 contest between former Congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and ten-term Congressman Ben Cardin. Mfume had little money and relied almost exclusive on black support. And it nearly worked: He was edged out by the well-funded Cardin, 43-40 percent. (Several minor candidates also ran.)

It stands to reason that Obama—who has consistently won more than 80 percent of the black vote in other states—will perform as well as Mfume did among black voters while also making inroads among white voters that Mfume couldn’t, thereby running his share of the statewide vote into the mid to high-50’s. The key question is how dominating Obama’s win will be: In how many districts will he cross the 60 percent threshold that will allow him to run up the delegate tally?

One factor that should help Obama is the hot Congressional primary between incumbent Al Wynn and attorney Donna Edwards in the heavily (about 60 percent) black 4th District. This is actually a rematch of a 2006 primary, in which Wynn was nearly caught sleeping by Edwards, who came within three points of knocking him off. This year, the incumbent may be more prepared. To prevail, he needs to produce a large plurality in his Prince George’s County base. Prince George, home to one of the largest black middle-class concentrations in the country, accounts for about 65 percent of the district, and a higher turnout here will probably translate into good news for Obama.

Edwards’ strength lies in affluent Montgomery County, which accounts for the other 35 percent of the district. Voters here tend to be white, educated and liberal. But they are also fiercely opposed to the Iraq War, and it was their fervent embrace of Edwards (who, like Wynn, is black) that nearly propelled her to victory in ’06. Montgomery County is supposed to be one of Clinton’s stronger areas in Maryland, but if the anti-war sentiment that drove Edwards’ voters in ’06 is still prevalent, Obama could fare well in Montgomery too.

Clinton is running with the backing of Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore who is now in his second year as governor.

Virginia:

In theory, this should be a stronger state for Clinton than Maryland. Virginia has a high black population, but it’s about a third less than Maryland’s, meaning that Obama starts off with less of a leg-up here.

The Clinton campaign would like to make a score in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia, where the population—and Democratic registration—has been swelling for the last decade. They are counting on deep support in this area from women voters in particular. And they also hope to run up the score in rural southwest Virginia, where lower-income white voters—if the pattern that has prevailed in other Southern states holds up—will favor Clinton over Obama.

But this might work better in theory than in practice. Obama, who is backed by Governor Tim Kaine, seems well-positioned in northern Virginia, home to the affluent and educated white voters who have supported him elsewhere. And he could post big wins in the state’s heavily black areas, particularly Richmond (where Mayor and former Governor Doug Wilder is on board) and Norfolk.

Polls have shown Obama ahead by around 15 points. If Clinton can keep his margin in the mid-single digits or better, she may be able to declare some kind of moral victory here.

District of Columbia:

The District’s charismatic mayor, Adrian Fenty, has campaigned across the country for Obama, who will undoubtedly win here—and big. D.C. is about 60 percent black, meaning that Obama can probably win the primary without a single non-black vote, assuming he takes more than 80 percent of the black vote (which he has had no trouble doing elsewhere). And, since he has consistently been able to win at least 40 percent of the white vote in previous contests, a landslide D.C. victory is almost certainly on tap for him.

In 2004, D.C. held a non-binding primary the week before the Iowa caucuses, a mostly unsuccessful effort to put the statehood issue and other urban concerns on the candidates’ agendas. But most candidates didn’t participate because the event encroached on Iowa and New Hampshire’s preeminence. Howard Dean ended up winning with 43 percent, with Al Sharpton grabbing 34 percent (his best showing anywhere in 2004) and Carol Moseley-Braun (remember her?) at 12 percent. Overall, turnout was about 12 percent. With actual delegates on the line, it figures to be much higher this time around.

Republicans

Roughly speaking, John McCain is right now in the position Bill Clinton was in when he first seemed to wrap up the Democratic nomination in 1992.

Clinton seemed to emerge when he swept the South on Super Tuesday and then won landslide victories in Illinois and Michigan. His nearest competitor, Massachusetts’ Paul Tsongas, then suspended his campaign, bowing to the front-runner’s seemingly insurmountable delegate advantage. That left Jerry Brown, the former California governor who’d waged a shoestring, grassroots candidacy. The media dismissed him as a nuisance and declared the race over.

But then Brown won an stunning upset in Connecticut, and the media—along with influential Democrats—began rethinking its verdict. Was the Democratic rank-and-file sending a message that they were not happy with the idea of Clinton as the nominee? Was there room for a new candidate to step forward and claim the nomination?

No one considered Brown a serious threat to win the nomination, despite his Connecticut win. He was so far behind in delegates that wins in all of the remaining states still wouldn’t have put him over the top—and the party’s leaders were hardly willing to get behind him.

So the next state on the calendar—New York—became a referendum on Clinton’s nomination: If Brown (or Tsongas, whose name remained on the ballot) won, then Clinton would be considered fatally flawed, and either Tsongas would re-enter or the party’s big wigs would graft a white knight (say, Mario Cuomo) into the race. Or both would happen.

On primary day, Clinton won easily, and the nomination was essentially his.

Which brings us to McCain, who was declared the presumptive nominee by the press after his strong Super Tuesday showing prompted Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney to suspend his campaign, leaving the hopeless Mike Huckabee as McCain’s only remaining foe. And given the delegate disparity between the two, Huckabee was also immediately written off, since he—like Brown in ‘92—would also fall short of the nomination even if he won every remaining contest.

But Huckabee caused McCain a serious headache by winning Kansas by 36 points over the weekend, eking out a narrow victory in Louisiana, and almost scoring an upset in Washington state—a narrow loss his campaign is now contesting. Like with Clinton in ‘92, McCain is now being forced to answer all
sorts of questions about the message his party’s base seems to be sending.

Which makes Virginia and Maryland McCain’s New York. Convincing wins over Huckabee in both states—Virginia, in particular—should silence talk of a widespread Stop-McCain movement and cement his status as the presumptive nominee.

A win in Maryland, where the G.O.P. electorate is more moderate and independent-friendly, is all but assumed for McCain. Virginia might be trickier, because the electorate is more conservative and the presence of religious conservatives is more pronounced. This is, after all, the state of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.

If Huckabee can engineer a win in Virginia, it will prompt serious questions from G.O.P. leaders about the wisdom of nominating McCain, just as it will portend similar results in many of the remaining primaries and caucuses, guaranteeing embarrassing headlines for McCain throughout the spring.

The good news for McCain is that polls show him clearly leading both states. Despite his weekend stumble, he is in a position to win both handily, and while that might not be enough to flush Huckabee from the race, it will be enough to prove that—as fervent and devoted as it is—Huckabee’s support has a clear ceiling and is not expanding.